Johnson walks back home

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Michael Johnson, saying it was like coming back from a vacation, knew he was back home Monday morning at Paul Brown Stadium when Bengals equipment managers Jeff Brickner and Adam Knollman had his locker stocked  just like the old days.

"Even better,," said Johnson, the native who returned from his one-year hiatus. "Best equipment staff in the league. Anything you need to get better.

"He's got three loops for his laundry now instead of two, plus a new number (90), and more of his favorite workout tights to go in his old locker. He also brought back a Georgia Tech degree in business administration and marketing that had been ten years in the making.

" I'll send it home to my mom. It's got the Selma address on there, so that's where it's going," said Johnson, dripping with the sweat of Monday morning's ritual. "That'll be something I always point to. It means a lot, for real.  It was my third offseason going back. I went back in 2011, 2013 and now 2015."

While re-tracing his steps in 2014 free agency from Tampa to Cincinnati this spring, he made the Dean's list with a 3.4 in five classes when he walked on Saturday. When someone asked him if he graduated with honors he offered, " No. But it was an honor to graduate."

Johnson, 28, went back in odd years, but it all seemed very normal. Indeed, he says he got more out of college in his last three stints  in Atlanta than he did while playing for Tech from 2005-09. He chalks it up to his experience in the NFL giving him the discipline to follow through on the academics.

"When you're a student-athlete, you don't really get to enjoy what it's like to be in college. Just the stress and pressure from doing everything, you're just so tired all the time," Johnson said. "Half the battle is staying awake in class. Being able to come in and focus and pay attention and stuff and partake in the class that was big. It was an enjoyable experience.

"Just sitting in these meetings in the league, it really prepared me to be able to sit in class and focus. Sitting in a dark room in an uncomfortable chair watching film. If I can sit in there and do that, then I can stay awake in class. The NFL helped me to be a better student when I came back. I suggest guys that haven't done it go back and do it. It's something they can never take away from you."

The Johnsons have done this before. His mother graduated from Tuskegee, his father from Alabama State, and so the dinner after the ceremony was maybe about 30 in a gathering of family and friends. The final exam had been on Thursday. Strategic management.

"Twenty multiple choice and four essays," Johnson said. " So three points for the multiple choice and 10 points for the essay, so you had to know what you were talking about at the end."

It was strategic management that got him back to the Bengals. When the Buccaneers cut him after giving him $16 million, he got $20 more million from the Bengals for the next four years four days later because old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer couldn't give him in Minnesota what he had in Cincinnati.

"Nothing like a family and we're family here. You can't beat that," Johnson said.

The defensive line is the same one he left after 2013, so Johnson called Monday "a family reunion." He's one of the few guys that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins speaks to and they commiserated privately.

"That's between us," said Johnson, who alluded to the expanded weight room instead. "They even have some upgrades going on around here. That's pretty good."

On their group text, the D-line has been talking about getting back to the big sack numbers of 2011-2013, back when they ripped off 45, 51, and 43, before finishing dead last in the NFL in '14.

"We're going to go in and have fun and feed off each other. It's just going to be good getting the band back together," Johnson said. "We're going to come out and play hard and just have a good time.  Coming to work is fun. It doesn't feel like work. When you can get that type of environment, that's special. When you've got that, you want to keep it."

Johnson showed up Monday and said it felt like he'd been gone on vacation. That's all. A vacation or semester break.

"And I came back refreshed," he said. I have a knowledge  of seven years of experience with the excitement of a rookie, really. I'm just ready to get back in the fold, get back in the mix of things. And take it to a whole other level and be even better."

But on this day, football had a back seat to the degree. Johnson is one of the most active Bengals in the community and now he feels fully armed when he'll head back into the schools and youth centers this season.

"When I talk to kids about the importance of education and going as far as you can, I talk about how knowledge is powerful," he said. "It would only be right for me to back up what I say and do it myself. Now they see that example and inspire and encourage others to do the same thing."

The vacation is over.

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